Thursday, July 11, 2019

I Read the Book Month: The Trial

The Trial (1962)
When we're choosing films here, the question we ponder isn't just whether there is a church or clergy, but we especially ponder whether there's enough church and clergy.

Obviously, you have films like The Apostle, Going My Way, or Dead Man Walking that feature clergy as the principal players. Some films with much smaller roles for clergy are of interest to us, too -- we took a full month to write about Friar Tuck in Robin Hood films, though nobody ever thinks those stories are about the man in the brown robe rather than the man in the green tights.)

This happens to be “I Read the Book Month” at Movie Churches, and I read Franz Kafka’s The Trial before I saw the 1962 adaptation of the story written and directed by Orson Welles (Welles also plays the role of the Advocate). Both the movie and the book tell the story of a man, Josef K, a banker who, for reasons never made clear, is arrested and is subjected to the full force of government bureaucracy. (I watched the film through Kanopy, a service of our local library system, which in its summary of the film said that Josef K faces a “Kafkaesque nightmare.” That's wrong, of course: it’s not “Kafkaesque,” it’s Kafka itself.)

In the novel, a chapter called "In the Cathedral" appears toward the end of the book. The chapter features a priest who serves as the Court Chaplain. Josef K meets and spends quite a bit of time with the priest while on a tour of the Cathedral. Josef says that the priest is one of the few people in the court system who expresses any genuine concern for Josef and his situation. Not enough concern to make a difference, but…

The priest’s portion of the novel is small but important. His appearance in the film is even briefer. Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is chased and goes into a cathedral. The priest is in a pulpit, from which he condemns Josef as a guilty man. (Like everyone in the film and novel, he never says exactly what Josef K is guilty of. He’s just guilty.) 

The priest says, “Your guilt is assumed here to be proved.” When Josef denies his guilt, the priest says, “The guilty always talk like that.” (That line comes straight from the novel.)

When the priest descends from the pulpit, he is wearing a robe that looks like a judge’s robe. He tries to persuade Josef he should submit to the will of the court, calling him, “my son.” 

Josef responds, “I’m not your son” and flees from the cathedral.

So the priest (Michael Lonsdale) appears for only about five minutes in a two-hour film. Is that enough to write about? I think it is, because the priest serves as an illustration of the worst thing the church can choose to do in a totalitarian society. It can choose to adapt to the rule of the world. The priest becomes just another cog in the machine that is grinding an individual into dust. And the priest in the film doesn’t even show the compassion to be found in the priest in the novel.

Church bells are heard throughout the film, but the church is really just another part of the dehumanizing system. Which is why the cameos of the priest and the cathedral earn our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

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